Who is Pearl Primus?
Pearl Primus was an American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist on a mission prove African dance was worthy of both critical study and professional performance.
Discovering her gift
Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 and emigrated to New York City with her parents when she was a toddler. She excelled in school and majored in biology/pre-med at Hunter College. However, racial discrimination in the field prevented Primus from landing a job. To make ends meet, she worked backstage for America Dances and was eventually hired as an understudy. Her natural talent for the art form was undeniable, and Primus went on to join the New Dance Group, a Lower East Side dance troupe that promoted social reform through their performance. At NDG, Primus studied with such teachers as Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Nona Schurman, William Bales, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, and Louis Horst.
Dance as activism
Primus also began to choreograph her own works, fusing spirituals, jazz music, spoken word, and themes of her own heritage to demonstrate the African and African American experience. An eternal student, Primus did extensive fieldwork to inspire and authenticate her choreography. To experience the impoverished Black communities of the South, she posed as a migrant laborer working in the fields and attending church worship. And when she traveled to Africa for an 18-month anthropological study (with a grant from the Jules Rosenwald Foundation), Primus declared herself a man so that she could learn the dances that only men were allowed to do. Primus’ sociological research was unique in that she kept the original dances, songs, and customs intact in her choreography rather than adapting them to “fit” her artistic vision.
An art worthy of study and performance
Primus choreographed for Broadway, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and her own troupe, The Primus Company. She continued her education by pursuing an MA in educational sociology and a PhD in anthropology from NYU. She founded the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute with classes in African American, Caribbean, and African dance forms as well as ballet and modern technique. Primus went on to teach anthropology and ethnic dance at numerous universities and was awarded a National Medal for the Arts in 1991. She remained active in the dance community until her death in 1994.